FAILURES, A TIME
“Child, you need to do what we did for Jen. When she’d cry we’d get some of dad’s Bay Rum off his dresser and rub it into her balm. Worked for her. And for Christ’s sake don’t drown Liam.”
Liam’s brow imitates Sheri’s—they worry. She kisses him through his cries, a forced admiration.
Rob had been to his father’s funeral in Essex and pinned a beer-bottle-cap pin to a lapel, but removed it when one officer shook “no” with eye contact. His father’s green beret cocked, stiff. Four bronze stars, a tan striped black-ribbon medal, and a purple heart slanted as if wind blew across his chest.
Sheri cooks with Liam on her hip, the phone shoulder held. She knows time differently after having Liam. Naps, like thirst quenched by drops, make sleep a torment.
Their mailbox stands by an eroded gravel driveway. No word from family. No interest in little Liam. Rob tries his wife: left scattered dishes, dirty boots inside. Sheri thirsts for sleep; time alone. She grows envious of Rob’s solitude in the woods. She mills through boxes filled with odd tools, fuses and jars of nails left by the Sheritons, the family who’d left behind a roomful of newspapers in stacks; ancient and preserved.
Rob leaves in a week to sell the walnut stacked next to his flatbed. Sheri pictures herself grown thin, unable to eat in his continued absence, this environment, becoming dire from Liam’s shrill cries. Sheri asked, could she line the basement walls with her fruit jars. Rob told her they’d be better in kitchen cabinets.
“Jarred fruits belong in cellars,” she’d said, and looked at his stack of pitch pine for the second floor, his forgotten promises to repair the walls, the door frames.
Rob slumps and leans early morning at the back door. Back door scents mingle, coffee and mud. Apple trees shade a hollow-marred red Chevy, a bike, and a beaten, stained butcher’s block by the barn. Barn-side nails hang obsolete green tractor parts. Long yellow grain augers pile from the hayloft, fallen one morning. Apples fall softly, thump-thump to red rust-pocked metal. Lina the cat stalks and Liam cries. Sheri says, “You could solve all the issues out there in an afternoon with the skidder.”
“I don’t see any issues out there.”
Rob idles the skidder during his last coffee. The large six-cylinder compressor engine clatters plates on shelves, rattles loose banister rungs, picture- and window-frames; beans in a bin dance with her marbles in a jar above the fireplace. Sheri’s books collapse again and Liam holds rungs of his crib—mouth-open smile, silence in wonderment. Rob sets coffee on the counter top, folds his arms, leans against the door frame and his house rattles Liam calm.
Rob’s skidder, an old John Deer, came with claw, backhoe and tire chains. He parks it underneath the lowest, longest eve of the house. Sheri says, “You move the augers you could park the beast in the barn,” and smiles out the back door. Beyond house and four-acre field are: Shagbark Hickory, Shellbark Hickory mixed in Black Locust; Eastern Cottonwood, Shingle Oak, and Post Oak crowd the corners of five acres of wooded streams and slow hills. Rob paid off his John Deer with a single haul of American Walnut. He paid Sheri’s medical bills in two hauls of Oak.
“Wood pays,” he says, “chores don’t.”
Mr. Johns looks at the top of Rob’s auburn head as if it might respond. A trade din surrounds. Farmers spit softly onto gravel-covered cement. An old man sits in a lawn chair at the entrance. He signs people in, as old men do. Coffee from Stanleys steams with hay piles on flat-bed trucks occupied by thick-skinned smiles and boots on dashboards. Sparrows hop rafters and bathe in puddles underneath livestock. Rob looks through his handshake to Mr. John’s faded tan boots and his own worn sneakers.
Mr. John holds Rob’s handshake. His thick, cracked fingers hold comfortable pressure. Mr. John and other farmers know Rob and Sheri.
“Rob, I know you guys are hurtin’,” he says, “and I’m sorry about yer father. Take those snow tires back and call it even. All I got is the Mrs. and the mutt. We got plenty.”
“I couldn’t. I’ll see you next trade.”
“Right, but I’m not taking them, you’re gonna have to let ’em rot, or git them taken by the Kemp boys, bless ’em.”
“You leave ’em I’ll take ’em, but you know how I feel.”
“Sure do. You’re a good man, Rob. Just let me know if you kids are in need come winter. I could use some birch for the fireplace. And tell Sheri drop us by some them apple pies like the last few months.”
“Right, thank you.”
“Right, see you next trade.”
Rob looks to Mr. John’s wind-carved slits-for-eyes as the handshake parts.
Rob drives his brittle blue pickup, grinning, lush inside, warmed. The windmill kit, big and cumbersome, creaks against its ropes on slow corners home. He pieces out the kit on the lawn below Liam’s window.
Sheri wakes. Rob snores gentle calm. Liam croons and Sheri realizes she woke to sound. Windows drip condensation. She walks the hall. Liam rasps and screams. His hand reaches through the crib rungs and Sheri lifts him and bounces him soft by the window. A pair of moonlit eyes trot between house and barn and disappear as they pass. Liam screams in Sheri’s ear and she gives a nipple. Only now and then will she breast-feed him. Her shoulders drop with his suckle and she sighs with exhaustion. He falls asleep. Sheri’s sallow complexion in the window she finds bores her and she rests the child and sits outside his door in the hallway. She lights a cigarette and closes his door. She slumps to the floor after her smoke and falls asleep. Rob retrieves her and Liam screams in the early morning light. Under flooring joists beneath Liam’s crib Rob lies in a foot-and-a-half-tall crawlspace that hid a rust-locked decrepit Winchester .022 and ancient skeletons of domesticated animals. Lina jumps from tree to porch roof, gets through a boarded window, and camps in the flooring. Rob sees her eyeing the dead and pulls her by the scruff from the crawlspace. “Sorry, puss,” he says, “can’t have you smellin’ up the place.”
Skinny the fat dog chases Lina to the back porch where she busts through her red flap into the kitchen, down the hallway, up the steps and jumps inside the wall once more.
Skinny returns to Rob and sits some feet away, watching, panting.
Skinny stares at Rob and the pieced-out windmill kit. Sheri thinks it odd, the whole image. She opens the window to see Rob’s arm and leg below.
“Honey, what’re we gonna do with a windmill? We don’t have water for a well, the surveyors told us.” Skinny barks adamantly at her in the window.
“I know. The surveyors.” He moves his head out from under the house. “I imagine we can put it to some good use. I just gotta get it up and running. Skinny!”
“When?” she barks, “What’s under the house?”
“Never you mind,” he trails off. He scoots underneath.
“Weren’t we gonna clean that cellar out and put wires down there? You said we’d have space for the fruit,” she sighs and shot off, “You said we’d have lights.”
“No, Sheri, I didn’t!” he yells through the floor. “I’m goddamn doing something.”
“Yeah? The fuck.” She leans out the window.
Skinny barks and barks. “Goddamn motherfuck,” Rob says, “Skinny! Shaddap!” Sheri slams the window down. Rob nearly comes apart. She looks a moment at the crying mouth and clenched fists. She wishes she could leave it all.
Rob comes inside and removes his boots, his socks. Lights a cigarette and mopes down the hall. “Sheri, okay, so, okay when I turned on the skidder he stopped crying. He needs distraction. Something low and rumbling, something that vibrates his crib.” Rob stands arms crossed for a fight as Sheri rubs Liam’s chest. “The basement will be for washing shit, there’s not enough room down there for fruit. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t know if it was the skidder. Maybe he burped or something—you don’t know.” She slumps into her fussy posture, readies for the fight and drops Liam’s bottle.
“Sheri, I saw him immediately stop crying. I saw it. It was like—some magical . . . ”
“See, the weird thing isn’t he stopped crying, but you park the skidder so close to the house that you vibrate his crib. You ever think he cries because of you being so god damn loud?” She holds the empty bottle by its silly nipple and walks from the room down the hall to the kitchen.
Rob hovers over Liam. Liam wails. “He was feeling the vibration. Weren’t you? I know it for a fact. Some babies respond to rumbling, not rocking,” he postures himself straight and says to Liam, “that’s true—I read that somewhere.” He lightly shakes the crib.
“You’re going to build the windmill to do it, aren’t you? You are. That’s so stupid, Robert! I can’t believe you—without me, without consulting me about buying this stupid thing you, you won’t even put together the—it’s just going to sit there like the damn second floor! I could . . . ” She warms Liam’s bottle. On the counter, rusted speculum and shears from the barn. She holds the speculum and grips the handle. The hinge grits rust on rust, and she forces it open. Her lip trembles. The clinical nature of her love, her resolve to stick this out, doubles her over.
Rob yells, “I’m fucking doing it! I am fucking doing it. Not you.”